Like so many communities, an important part of the history of South Haven, Michigan has been shaped by fire and its continued existence would not be possible without the services of an dedicated fire department.
Today, this community is protected by the South Haven Area Emergency Services (SHAES), the outgrowth of an expanded department serving the City of South Haven and neighboring townships of Casco, Geneva and South Haven. The department responds to more than 2,000 calls annually.
South Haven has had a fire department since 1888. The first equipment consisted of a wagon designed to carry ladders and two dozen pails. The wagon was pulled through the streets by the firefighters. In addition, a tank capable of holding 100 barrels of water was constructed in the central business district.
Today, the South Haven Area Emergency Services (SHAES) operates out of three stations equipped with numerous pieces of fire fighting apparatus, three ambulances, and a trailered fire boat. A well equipped heavy rescue truck serves the department in responses to a busy Interstate highway that runs through the community. The geographic challenges of the community (Lake Michigan lakefront, dunes and wooded areas) is served by smaller equipment such as a grass truck and the quad runner. The industrial base and nearby South Haven airport is protected by a foam-equipped trailer.
In 1888 the equipment was housed in the Metcalf Blacksmith Shop at Phoenix and Pearl streets. The first real firehall was constructed in 1890 on Center street, present site of the Michigan Theatre. In 1892 a new firehall was built on Phoenix street to accommodate a department that consisted of two hose carts and two chemical extinguishers.
South Haven continued to have man-powered equipment until 1906 when a hose wagon that could be pulled by a team of horses was purchased for $500. A team of horses back then cost $200. However, these animals weren’t “specialists” as they were also expected to pull the city’s street sweeper.
The station was relocated to Broadway avenue in 1930 where the department operated until 1991 when a new building (now station #3) was built along Blue Star Memorial Highway. Station #3 underwent an extensive renovation in 2013. The department also constructed stations strategically located in Casco and Geneva townships.
The department first motorized fire truck was acquired in 1917. At that time the department’s budget was $4,000. Today the Authority operates on a $2.6 million budget.
Two vintage trucks that served the community for many years, a 1923 American LaFrance and a 1946 American LaFrance, remain with the department and are used in parades and at other civic events.
For many years the city’s fire department provided services to Casco, Geneva and South Haven townships through contracts. In 1957 Casco township decided to have their own fire department.
In 1982 the department was also operating the community’s ambulance service, including the townships. Faced with economic uncertainties and long-term viability for the ambulance service, a committee was appointed in 1992 consisting of representatives from the governmental units. The committee made a milestone decision in 1994 to conduct a study on the feasibility of creating a joint fire and ambulance serve.
The outcome was a recommendation to create a joint fire and ambulance service authority. On Jan. 1, 1996 the South Haven Area Emergency Services (SHAES) authority, consisting of the City of South Haven and the townships of Casco, Geneva and Geneva, was launched.
The department currently operates out of three stations located 90 Blue Star Memorial Highway (Station #3, City of South Haven), 864 66th Street (Station #1, Casco Township) and 03000 64th Street (Station #2, Geneva Township). The department staff consists of 15 fulltime and 37 paid-on-call members.
SHAES is truly a model of inter-governmental cooperation.
The first SHAES Board was comprised of members from an existing committee that had been studying the ambulance service provided the community. At their first meeting members installed Robert Freye as Chairman, Ross Stein as Vice Chair, Alan Overhiser as Secetary, Linda Irwin as Treasurer and Alan Vanderberg as Administrator. The board also approved Randy Van Wynen as the Executive Director (aka Fire Chief).
At the first board meeting approvals for: the first year's budget, the lease & equipment agreements with Casco and the City, the administrative agreement with the City and a labor contact with the firefighter's union were approved. Under the agreement no employee was placed in a worse position and service levels were not reduced.
While many of the consultant's findings were used, the Chief recommended not to reduce the fulltime staff to eleven and place them into a three-shift system or to use the proposed equipment recommendations. The board agreed to keep the staff at twelve and to retain two shifts in order to provide the maximum number of personnel on duty and reduce the probability of increasing overtime. Board meetings are currently held on the first Wednesday of the month at fire station #3.
The South Haven Fire Department was organized in 1888 and employed a fulltime fire warden known now as the Fire Chief. Records show that in the 1920s the department had four fulltime drivers and five part-time firefighters. The City fire services were also provided to Casco, South Haven and Geneva Townships via contracts. In 1957 Casco Township decided to have their own fire department and their first station was built at the intersection of 64th street and 107th avenue. By the late fifties and through the mid seventies the City fire department had eight fulltime firefighters, a fulltime Chief and up to seventeen part-time (volunteer) firefighters.
In 1982 the South Haven Fire Department was operating the ambulance service and through contracts were providing ambulance service to Casco, South Haven and Geneva Townships. Casco also contracted for the fire department to act as the first response unit to their southwest lower corner of the township in 1984. During the mid eighties many of the Casco and South Haven firefighters trained together.
During the late eighties and early nineties budget deficits in the ambulance division took funds from the fire division. There were no cash reserves targeted at apparatus or critical equipment replacement. The formation of the Ambulance Study Committee in 1992 paved the way for the creation of SHAES.
Prior to 1973 ambulance service was provided through the Van Buren County Sheriff Department via roving ambulances and a sub-station at South Haven Township Hall. In 1973 the Sheriff turned the service over to local units of government and Van Buren County voters passed a ½ mill ambulance tax. The county tax, which continues (most recently 2014) through the support of voters, is distributed to each ambulance district on a per-capita basis. These districts are operated countywide by fire departments and private ambulance services.
In 1979 South Haven Township asked the city fire chief to take over daily oversight and operations of the ambulance service. The township's three employees and a new ambulance were assigned to the city's fire station. When the ambulance responded to a call one township employee and a city firefighter staffed the rig. In 1980, the township added one more employee under a federal grant program known as CETA to provide relief for their employees.
The City agreed to take over the ambulance service in 1982. The township transfered to the city over $70,000 of fund balance. This money was used to purchase a new ambulance. The four township employees were hired by the city and the city's firefighters who where not trained as an EMT received their medical training to bring the total crew of Firefighter/EMT to twelve.
However, through the late eighties and early nineties ambulance revenues from service charges decreased steadily. Changes in Medicare & Medicaid were primary causes along with unpaid collectables and an increasing overhead. In 1991, with input from an independent billing company, it was decided not to participate in Medicare thinking it would decrease the amount of write-downs & write-offs (the amounts Medicare did not approve). An increase in revenue was anticipated, but what actually happened was an increase in hardship to older customers. By 1992 the city asked for a $10 per capita from each township and then in 1993 they requested a $17 per capita subsidy. Prior to 1992 the townships paid a contractual amount of approximately $3 per capita while the City's residents were paying $27 per capita. These escalating costs caused the parties (Casco, South Haven & Geneva Townships and the City) to explore other options for ambulance service. An Ambulance Study Committee was formed and met over the next four years. It ultimately led to the creation of SHAES.
In 1998 the newly formulated SHAES Board voted to again to accept Medicare. In 2000 new rules were adopted by the federal government requiring every ambulance company to accept Medicare. Also in 2000, SHAES became an advance life support (paramedic) agency.
SHAES currently has a fleet of four ambulances operating out of two of the department's three stations.
FIRE CHIEFS – William Moore (1888-90), F.R. Cady (1890-92), Dallas M. Miller (1892), Frank A. Wheeler (1893), E.I. Hueson (1894-95), George Beebe (1895-99), E.W. Edgerton (1899-1908), Frank A. Wheeler (1908-14), Rudy Welch (1914-40), J. Cecil Myers (1940), Norman Wyers (1942-54), Leslie Olmstead (1954-77), Oliver Morehead (1977), Richard Lundy (1978-80), Sherman Dykstra (1980-85), Dion L. LeMieux (1985-89), Stanley Wakild and Randy VanWynen (1989), Stanley Wakild (1989-93), Jerry Bridges (1994-95), Randy VanWynen (1996-2007), Al Hosier (2007-08), Ronald Wise (2008-present, pictured).
HONORARY FIRE CHIEFS Donald Goodwillie, Sr., Wilbur Ingrham, Arthur Bolt
1985-86 - Keith Bierhealter, 1986-87 - Don Jenks, 1987-88 - Ed Bierhalter, 1988-89 - Robert Henry, 1989-90 - Tony Marsala, 1991-92 - Randy Van Wynen; 1992-93 - Jerry Sajewski and Ron Wise, 1993-94 - Dana Schnooberger, 1994-95 - Richard Strasser, 1995-96 - Keith Olson, 1996-97 - David Henry, 1997-98 - Allan Hosier, 1998-99 - David Zink, 1999-00 - Emil Wessling, 2000-01 - Dan Renner, 2001-02 - Don Quinn, 2002-03 - Ron Ridley, 2003-04 - Dustin Guminski, 2004-05 - John Hodge, 2005-06 - Jim Lindemulder, 2006-07 - Owen Ridley, 2007-08 - Felice Gruber, 2008-09 - Paul Quinn, 2009-10 - Don Quinn, 2010-11 - Keith Bierhalter, 2011-12 - Brian Montgomery, 2013-14 - Tim Quinn; 2016-17 - David Griessel (pictured with Chief Wise).
2008- Al Hosier; 2009- Donald Quinn; 2010- Emil Wessling; 2011- Gerald Sajewski; 2012- Brandon Hinz; 2013- Patrick Quinn; 2014- Thomas Leva; 2015 - Brian Montgomery; 2016 - Cesar Garcia; 2017 - Steve Jones (pictured with Chief Wise and Deputy Chief Marsala).
2014 - James D. Quinn and Phillip Quinn; 2015 - Shawn Smith; 2016 - Dawn Hinz and Paul Quinn; 2017 - Owen Ridley, James Lindemulder, Johanna Quinn (pictured with Chief Wise).